What We Are and What Our Children Eat

Food is no longer just food. It is a statement, a value, a marker and a signifier. Food has political value and it is freighted with meaning. What we eat, and what are children eat, is no simple matter. Stepping beyond the perspective of a father encouraging his children to consider a balanced plate, what our nation’s children eat at school is an extraordinarily complex and interesting issue. Why aren’t school lunches healthier? What about breakfast? And is is possible to please the palate of an eight-year-old?

Jan Poppendieck’s Free For All: Fixing School Food in America is a fascinating look at how policies on school food developed, how they have changed over the years through various political and governmental initiatives, and what the current state of affairs means for schools, teachers, policy makers, parents, and above all, students. There is no fix, no one perspective when it comes to school food. In fact, Poppendieck’s work makes clear the limits of federal, state and local controls. Different stakeholders, acting rationally and often appropriately, inevitably conflict with each other.

Emerging in the 1930s as a way to fight the Great Depression and to help farmers, government support for food for school children has been a knotted mishmash of good intentions conflicting with budgetary realities and the limits of our federal system. The USDA and its commodity structure maintains a prominence in the school food system today. The multiple agencies, plans and programs make for a byzantine history – and one of the small criticisms I have of Poppendieck’s book is the lack of a glossary so that I might keep the acronyms straight.

Poppendieck’s interest is not primarily about the history of policy or policy formation. She is trained as a sociologist and her methodology is sociological, looking at organizational units which are presumed to be acting rationally. Individual players take a smaller role in her thinking. The result is a study of a dysfunctional sociology.

For example, what makes more sense – food cooked locally, attendant to the wants and needs of students at the school, or centrally prepared food that is distributed for local heating. In the food service industry, it is called “rethermalization.” As food temperature is a common complaint, one might assume that locally cooked food would make more sense. However, local food increases the risk of health concerns. To provide for safety, costs escalate dramatically when food is prepared locally. It is financially challenging, if not impossible.

In fact, school food as a whole reflects “chances in school finances, the USDA commodities available, and a growing concern about food-borne illnesses” as well as changes in society as a whole. Section 4 subsidies, the federal government’s contribution to school food, were cut significantly through the 1980s. School systems sought revenue in other ways, primarily through a la carte dining and vending, and cost savings through labor reductions and processed foods. These shifts took place as the very nature of food and meals changed for many American families. And not, incidentally, rates of obesity began to increase.

As for nutrition, the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children (SMI) establishes guidelines that are specifically set by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and are then monitored by state agencies, which look to local school food authorities (SFAs). For every local school, the creation of a menu involves a complicated algorithm balancing cost with expectations of calories, fat, vitamins and minerals. Parallel to this process, a set of separate research studies funded by the USDA created School Nutrition Dietary Assessments (SNDAs), which informed policies and practices, particularly with regard to the effort to get schools to plan menus using Nutrient Standard Menu Planning (NSMP). The School Nutrition Association (SNA) argues that America’s children are offered healthy choices; SNDA data suggests that America’s children often choose less healthy choices. The acronym for that discrepancy is OVS, offer versus serve, and it is at the heart of the challenge.

In other words, taste, bedevils the system. Food prepared with nutrition and health in mind often runs counter to the experience and preferences of children. Poppendieck tells of delicious meals cooked by well-meaning food professionals that go untested because children are unwilling or afraid to try them. Why test a pot roast when everyone else is eating chicken nuggets? Left to their own devices, children rarely make healthy choices when it comes to their meals. Systems that have instituted less choice often see tremendous waste – and that hurts the budget and the politics. Systems that institute more choice see children gravitating toward fast food.

A further issue explored by Poppendieck is the millions of children eligible for assistance with meals who do not participate. Despite overwhelming evidence from multiple sources that hungry children are poor learners, American schools have millions of hungry children that do not take advantage of help to get them free or reduced-cost food. Poppendieck explores the complicated systems created to make sure that no one takes unfair advantage of the offer, the poor communication and expectation regarding the programs, and above all, the tremendous social stigma that is attached to free or reduced-cost food. It is only recently that new technology and local initiatives have increased participation. Some argue that it easier and more effective to feed all, a proposal that Poppendieck endorses.

Recommendations are at the book’s conclusion, and also include suggestions that we lessen our thinking of students as “customers,” that schools incorporate meal time into the school day (learning can take place at lunch, as several educational innovators have demonstrated), and that a focus on nutrition be supplanted by a focus on healthy food and meals. The key argument, however, advanced by Poppendieck is that treating school food as a business decision has serious consequences for our children.

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